Blogcritics.org reported in March on a lawsuit filed by Kinderstart.com against Google Inc., and while Google is trying to have the case dismissed, a judge in San Jose has hinted that he will probably allow the case to proceed after some modification to add more specifics.
Kinderstart claims that Google re-ranked their site in March 2005 and caused their traffic to drop 70%, which in turn caused their AdSense revenue to drop 80%. Kinderstart claims that Google violates antitrust laws in delivering rankings based on secret criteria. The suit seeks damages, but more importantly, it seeks disclosure of the methods Google uses to rank sites. It calls Google’s practices anti-competitive, and it was this claim of anti-competitive behavior leading to antitrust that caused U.S. District Court Justice Jeremy Fogel to suggest that he intends to let the case proceed. A hearing in the case has been set for September 29, 2006.
A claim that Google violated the first-amendment rights of Kinderstart did not seem to move the judge.
As websites seek traffic, search engine ranking — primarily Google’s “pagerank” — is crucial. Very few sites manage to build a sustained audience of repeat visitors, and most rely heavily on a steady stream of visitor from search engines, especially market-leader Google. As Google tweaks their index every few months, the resulting “Googledance” sends webmasters around the world into fits of either laughter or tears as their sites climb or drop in the rankings. Several lawsuits have been filed against Google before, but Kinderstart’s is the first to make it this far, though the case is still in the preliminary stages.
Such cases are usually unsuccessful, because Google can claim a first-amendment right to rank websites according to whatever criteria they wish, just as other organizations — including Blogcritics.org — rank movies or restaurants. Jonathan Jacobson, an attorney for the firm representing Google, argues that Google has no obligation to help Kinderstart, comparing the case to one involving a Pepsi bottler seeking a percentage of Coke-owned vending machines. That suit lost.
Kinderstart’s attorney, Gregory Yu, says, “What Google is trying to do is take out the competition.”
Google claims that there is no human involvement in determining how websites are ranked, but that everything is the result of complex and proprietary algorithms. At the same time, it maintains that it has a right to downgrade any website’s ranking, including those of competitors, and including Kinderstart.com.
Kinderstart’s claim is that Google reduced their pagerank to zero, though my attempt to verify this revealed a pagerank of seven (out of ten). However, queries for “toddler,” “infant,” or even “kinderstart” did not reveal Kinderstart.com on the first page of results, as they say they had been prior to March 2005. People who work in the Search Engine Optimization industry have suggested that the reason Kinderstart.com is ranked so poorly has less to do with pagerank, and more to do with Google’s general de-emphasis on “link lists,” like most of Kinderstart.com.
On September 29, 2006, we will find out whether we might learn more.